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View Silence Dogood

Type: False Identity.
Summary: Sixteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin pretended to be a middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood.

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In 1722 a series of letters appeared in the New-England Courant written by a middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood. The letters poked fun at various aspects of life in colonial America, such as the drunkenness of locals, religious hypocrisy, and the persecution of women. Silence Dogood even had views about the fashion for hoop petticoats:

These monstrous topsy-turvy Mortar-Pieces, are neither fit for the Church, the Hall, or the Kitchen; and if a Number of them were well mounted on Noddles-Island, they would look more like Engines of War for bombarding the Town, than Ornaments of the Fair Sex. An honest Neighbour of mine, happening to be in Town some time since on a publick Day, inform’d me, that he saw four Gentlewomen with their Hoops half mounted in a Balcony, as they withdrew to the Wall, to the great Terror of the Militia, who (he thinks) might attribute their irregular Volleys to the formidable Appearance of the Ladies Petticoats.

Silence was particularly fond of ridiculing Harvard. She complained that it had been ruined by corruption and elitism, and that most of its students learned nothing there except how to be conceited:

I reflected in my Mind on the extream Folly of those Parents, who, blind to their Childrens Dulness, and insensible of the Solidity of their Skulls, because they think their Purses can afford it, will needs send them to the Temple of Learning, where, for want of a suitable Genius, they learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a Room genteely, (which might as well be acquir’d at a Dancing-School,) and from whence they return, after Abundance of Trouble and Charge, as great Blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.

Silence also wrote that she had once been married to a minister with whom she had lived for seven years before he had died, leaving her with three children. She coyly admitted that she didn’t enjoy the life of a widow and could be easily persuaded to marry again.

The readers of the Courant thought she was a charming woman. So charming, in fact, that a few of the male readers wrote in, upon learning that she was single, and offered to marry her.

Silence Dogood’s True Identity

Unfortunately for her would-be suitors, Silence Dogood did not exist. She was the invention of sixteen year-old Benjamin Franklin, who was working at the time as an apprentice to his older brother, James, a Boston printer.

Franklin concealed his authorship of the letters from his brother. He later wrote that he slipped the first Silence Dogood letter beneath the door of his brother’s printing shop at night to avoid detection. However, he later was pleased to listen in as his brother and his friends approvingly discussed the letter and decided to place it on the front page of the paper.

Franklin modeled the style of the letters after Joseph Addison’s and Richard Steele’s Spectator. His pseudonym was an allusion to the Boston minister Cotton Mather, who had written a book titled Essays to do Good. Many readers immediately recognized this allusion. The first name, Silence, might have alluded to another book by Mather titled Silentiarius: A Brief Essay on the Holy Silence and Godly Patience, that Sad Things are to be Entertained withal. Or it could have been a sly suggestion that Mather should be silent, since the letters were quite critical of the Puritan establishment that Mather represented.

Franklin wrote a total of fourteen Silence Dogood letters between April 2 to October 8, 1722. When he stopped writing the letters, his brother placed an ad in the paper in an attempt to find out who the mysterious letter writer really was:

If any person or persons will give a true account of Mrs. Silence Dogood, whether dead or alive, married or unmarried, in town or countrey, that so, (if living) she may be spoke with, or letters convey’d to her, they shall have thanks for their pains.

When Franklin confessed to his brother that he was the author, his brother grew quite displeased, fearing that all the compliments paid to Silence Dogood would make young Benjamin grow vain. Soon after this, Franklin decided to run away and seek his fortune in Philadelphia.

Silence Dogood was the first of many alter-egos that Franklin created throughout his life.

National Treasure

In 2004 Walt Disney Pictures released a movie, National Treasure, in which the Silence Dogood letters served as a central plot device. The movie suggested that Benjamin Franklin used the Silence Dogood letters as the basis for a secret code. This code, when solved, would supposedly lead one to the site of a fabled hidden treasure trove.

National Treasure is pure fiction. In reality, the Silence Dogood letters contain no secret clues relating to a hidden treasure.

The Silence Dogood Letters

The full text of the Silence Dogood letters can be found on many sites, such as HistoryCarper.com, or at Yale University’s online collection of Franklin’s writings.

References

  • Fedler, Fred. (1989). Media Hoaxes. Iowa State University Press. 1989.
  • Pancek, William. (2004). “Benjamin Franklin, Trickster.” Trickster’s Way. 3(1): 1-11.

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